Thursday, March 19, 2015

My First Novel: A Belated Comment

Reading occasional Amazon comments on Harald, my first novel, I am struck by the tendency of readers familiar with my nonfiction to assume that the novel is intended as an argument in favor of libertarianism. It is not. 

I portray three different societies in the novel, all based on historical models. One, the Vales, where my protagonist comes from, is loosely modeled on saga period Iceland. Another, the kingdom of Kaerlia, where most of the book happens, is loosely modeled on early Norman England. The third, the Empire, the antagonist against which the first two are allied, is a mix of Byzantine, Roman, and Abbasid institutions—the relation between the Emperor and his sons was inspired by the relation between Haroun al Rashid and his, although my emperor is considerably more competent than al Rashid was.

Each system has strengths and weaknesses. The most obvious weakness of the Vales is that it has neither a professional army supported by taxation nor a feudal levy. Harald, my protagonist, faces the continuing problem of raising an army of volunteers. The historical models I was thinking of were the Norse armies that ravaged England in the period leading up to Alfred the Great. As best I can tell, they were not national armies but entrepreneurial projects, warriors following a leader with a good reputation in search of land and loot.

One result is that Harald's military strategy largely consists of logistic warfare, of maneuvering the opposing army into a position where it must either surrender or die of hunger or thirst. He cannot afford to fight battles where a significant number of his troops get killed because if he does, nobody will show up next time. He is fighting a defensive war, so cannot offer land to his troops, but does offer loot, captured from the armies he is fighting or paid as ransom for legionaries forced to surrender. Also excitement, glory, and training in useful skills—when his people are not fighting the Empire, some of them are serving it as caravan guards and the like. And it helps that, in addition to his own troops, he has under his command the feudal army of his ally the king of Kaerlia.

The Empire has, from a military standpoint, several significant advantages. It has a highly trained professional army, the legions, which Harald describes as the best infantry in the world. It has the sort of culture that keeps written records and uses them. Harald has been fighting the Empire for more than twenty years and his current opponents have read detailed accounts of his past battles, which means that he gets to use any particular trick only once. To balance that, it has a culture with less room for originality and initiative than his. Artos, the best of the Imperial commanders, is technically as good a general as Harald. But he is less original, less unconventional, because an imperial officer with Harald's approach to solving problems would have been fired, possibly hanged, long before he reached high rank. The only place for that approach in the imperial system is at the very top, in the contest for the throne, and the one example we see of it is due not to Artos but to his employer, the younger and abler son of the Emperor.

As I try to make clear, the reason the Empire has not succeeded in conquering the Vales and the Kingdom is not that its system is inferior to theirs. It is that Harald, his ally the king of Kaerlia (who dies just before the novel starts), and his other ally the Lady Commander of the Order, happen to be extraordinarily talented people and close friends—two very able military commanders and a sovereign sufficiently wise to not only get and retain allies, but give his allies command over the combined army on the grounds that they are better at the job than he is.

I have written and published two novels. Both reflect my political interests and my professional interests as an economist. Neither of them is intended as an argument in favor of libertarianism. 

And for those interested:

Harald on Amazon
Harald web page
Harald as free podcasts
Salamander kindle
Salamander hardcopy


Jonathan said...

Well, I didn't think that Harald seemed strongly relevant to your interest in liberty, but it clears the air to have an official statement on the subject.

There have been some attempts to dramatize a libertarian society in fiction, but it would be nice to see more and better attempts. So far I haven't discovered the knack of writing fiction; otherwise I might have tried it myself.

Scott Pi said...

David, Amazon has your Harald book listed as written by David M. Friedman. Let them know.

Tibor said...

I read about 60% of Harald some months ago and maybe I will make myself finish it eventually (I prefer not to have any half-read books...unless they are completely terrible, but then I usually don't get to more than 1/4th of the book).

The thing I really liked about it is its original setting, the interesting way the things are solved differently in the different societies and the story idea in general.

What I did not like above all (and that seems to be the main objection of reviewers on Amazon as well) is that all the characters sound almost exactly the same, ditto for the narrative and consequently without "A said:...:" "B replied: ..." it is sometimes hard to keep track of who says what. If only the people from the Vale spoke this way, with the people from the Empire speaking in a more roundabout way and those from the Kingdom being something in between (or one could even add some specific dialects) it would still sort of work (although it is the best when one can differentiate all the characters...also probably very hard for the writer). This way it was often painful to read and I had to go through some parts more than once or keep track of the order of the speakers so I knew who said what.

My second objection is that Harald is a superhero. He is an absolute genius and not only does he always win, he always wins exactly as planned. It never happens that something goes wrong in a plan of his which would force him to retreat, change plans or at least quickly improvise. That makes things very boring, because you know the outcomes ahead. He should be good, but he should not be winning all the time. Maybe in the battle with mirror signalisation to the reinforcements the sun goes down, or the imperial army notices the signals, prepares for them and Harald and his allies have to retreat to avoid a crushing defeat (and still maybe taking some minor losses). Essentially, there should be some drama, this way, it is just too sunny :)

David Friedman said...

I agree with you about the problem with voices. We do get a small scale version of something going wrong in the story he tells about his first battle. But you are probably right that it would be a better story if I made things a bit harder in one or more of the full scale battles.

I think both of those problems are reduced but not eliminated in my second (unrelated)novel. But I still don't have the trick of giving each character a sufficiently distinct voice so that the reader can tell who is speaking without being told.

Jonathan said...

I doubt that any author could give each character in a novel a distinctive 'voice' in written text, and it would look weird and contrived if you tried to do that. On the other hand, they probably shouldn't all 'sound' exactly the same: there may be some class or regional differences in language in some cases.

But the reader needs to be told who's speaking, regardless. You can't expect to recognize voices reliably in print.

Tibor said...

Jonathan: I just read Afterdark by Haruki Murakami at the weekend, there are about 5 significant characters appearing in the book and while sometimes it is hinted at who says what, most of the time you can tell just from the way people speak. Then again, all those characters are pretty distinct and there are not many of them. But usually there are not more than 5-10 main characters in a book anyway (unless it is something on the scale of LOTR or, god forbid, Silmarillion). 10 is probably already really hard, but 5 is apparently doable. Then again, Murakami is a professional writer of fiction and therefore has a lot of practice.

I'd then probably stick to mostly labeling who said what, there are many variations of that, so that it does not get too repetitive. And one can skip that when it is clear from the content of a speech who the speaker is.

Jonathan said...

Tibor: That can work in a novel with only a few diverse characters, but as far as I remember Harald has plenty of speaking characters, and only a few distinct societies that might have different ways of speaking. Different people from the same social group tend to use the same kind of language, unless they have a speech impediment or something.

David Friedman said...

Jonathan: On the other hand, there are ways of signalling who is speaking less direct than "John said." One of them is by what the person said. Another is by how he addresses it. A statement directed to "Your Majesty" isn't being said by the king, so if there are only two people in the scene ... .

A device I use, probably to excess, is to call attention to one character and then have him speak. "John looked up. 'Do you mean that ...'"

I don't like "he said" lines, although I have been told by people who probably know more about the subject than I do, that they are largely invisible to the reader.

Jonathan said...

Indeed. I've looked at some novels by different writers, and it seems common to use variety: sometimes "John looked up", sometimes "John said", sometimes "John murmured", sometimes no mention of John when not needed.

I'm surprised to see that the late lamented Terry Pratchett used "John said" rather often (though not in every case), and no-one seems to have minded: he's sold a vast number of books.

Tibor said...

Jonathan: I've read about 10 Terry Pratchett books (all of them were Discworld books I think) and I have never noticed I guess the "Rincewind said..." lines really are invisible :) Or it could also be that this was tuned down in the translation, I read all those books in Czech, although I am not sure a translator would normally do something like that, it's not his job to make the book better than it is in the original.

Jonathan said...

I've read about 45 different books by Terry Pratchett, many of them more than once. I've looked at several of them today, and I see that most of the dialogue is labelled with "said John"; although I never noticed it before.

Power Child said...

David, if you have trouble with voices, why don't you contract out that part of the writing out to someone who's good at it?

Just give them clear direction on how much flexibility they have regarding syntax and stuff like that, and any background info on how the character should talk that either they can't get from the rest of the book or that you want to make explicit.

For example, you could say "This character should talk exactly like this other character in movie X" and a good writer would know what to do.

You'd retain final veto and editing power of course.

To take bids, just send out a dialog sample and brief sketches of each participant and see who comes up with the result you (or a couple of volunteers) like best.

Natalie said...

Once, for reasons that seemed good at the time, I decided to swap round the names of two of the main characters in a science fiction story I was writing.

In those days the ability of a word processing program to replace all instances of word X with word Y was still a bit of a thrill to me. So I was very pleased with my own efficiency as I pressed the key replacing every mention of Name X with Name Y. Then I conscientiously saved my work. Then I realised that almost every single line of dialogue in my story was now spoken by the same character.

Working through the entire story the slow way in order to correctly assign a speaker to each line of dialogue taught me a lot about how successful, or unsuccessful, I was at distinguishing characters by varying styles of speech.

I'd recommend doing something like this as an exercise for aspiring writers. Replace every character's name by XXX and see if you can still see who's who in their flaming row. Maybe not on your only version of the document, though!

Jonathan said...

Nice story, Natalie.

Sounds like a good argument for saving your work-in-progress frequently, with a different filename each time, and keeping all versions. (I suspect that David already does this.)

Eric Rasmusen said...

This is a great ad for your book. I'm going to order it now. And I'm impressed you were thinking about the Abbasids!

David Friedman said...


Al Ma'mun, the winner in that particular competition, is one of my favorite Caliphs. He was an enthusiastic chess player but not a master, and used to say:

"I am the master of the World, and to that task I am sufficient, but to master two spans square, that is beyond me."

A fair number of other anecdotes suggesting a wise man who did not take himself too seriously.

The main thing I'm getting from the Abbasids is the political pattern that comes from polygeny without primogeniture. But a good deal of the relevant politics isn't shown in the book, only in my head and the unfinished (possibly never to be finished) sequel, which is largely set in the Empire.

Harald has some significant faults, so you may or may not enjoy it, although I do. I think my second novel is on the whole better.

David Friedman said...

Scott Pi:

Thanks. Fixed.